Lamest. Feminist Icon. Ever.

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland has an interesting write-up of the second half of Battlestar Galactica's summer season (am I wrong, or are most of the critical opinions about this show coming from genre insiders? Certainly it seems that mainstream venues can't stop falling over themselves to indiscriminately praise the show). Hartland makes a good argument about the importance of individuality and its acceptance within the show, and suggests that it is this ability to accept individuality--the huge range of human experience and personality--that separates good from evil on the show.
The Number Six stored in Balthar's mind exhorts us to consider the abused woman as an individual, a reality, rather than a scientific problem or icon. Balthar later observes that her catatonic state emphasizes more than anything else so far that the psychology of those Cylons who appear human is identical to that of the beings they imitate and destroy. When Cain, assuming command of the fleet, splits up the Galactica's crew on the grounds that Commander Adama is too close to them, and when Apollo is told by his new CO that he should not allow the problems of his friends to trouble him, what is really going on is a destruction of the very philosophy that has kept the understaffed crew of the obsolete Battlestar alive: their acceptance of individuality.
It's a good argument, despite some clunky supporting examples (it seems disingenuous to offer the reporter in "Final Cut" as an example of someone who learns to see past preconceived notions and recognize the crew's humanity, and it is downright incorrect to claim that Adama--who may be clinically incapable of thinking impersonally--attacks Sharon in "Home, pt. 2" because he forgets that she is a person), but more interesting to my mind is Hartland's criticism of Galactica's treatment of gender. Despite what mainstream reviewers may think, Galactica is at its core a very conservative show when it comes to issues of gender, although I haven't been able to decide whether or not this is intentional on the writers' part.

When it comes to sexual humiliation on the show, the men are seduced and the women are raped. As I wrote when I discussed the show back in September, all of its individualized villains are female, and two of those villains use sexuality as a weapon. On both Galactica and the Pegasus, there is a marked absence of women in positions of authority and command (in fact, with the exception of Admiral Cain, we've seen no female crewmembers on the Pegasus at all). And then there's Starbuck, who, whatever Laura Miller might think, is anything but a feminist icon.

's writers can't seem to stop apologizing for writing the character as she is. Starbuck is violent and headstrong because she's trying to fill up the empty void inside. The fact that she's sexually assertive and promiscuous is a sign that she's a 'screw-up'. That she doesn't want children is an indication of trauma and the result of being abused as a child (by her mother, who was apparently also a religious fanatic). Starbuck, we're told, wants to think of herself as mean and unworthy, wants to believe that she's not worth respect and love. Her confident demeanor conceals, as the stereotype goes, a profound lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.

I wouldn't like to be seen as saying that I want Starbuck to be perfect and well-adjusted, but the shape of her disfunction infuriates me. When I watch her, I find myself constantly recalling that genuine feminist SF icon, Farscape's Officer Aeryn Sun, whose character starts out, like Starbuck, as a capable soldier who is incapable of recognizing her feelings and who treats sex as recreation. Aeryn grows and changes over Farscape's run, and although by the show's end she has traded in her role as an emotionless soldier for that of a wife and mother, it is an empowering journey. Aeryn is flawed and, as a person, incomplete, but at no point did Farscape's writers suggest that, in order to experience the full range of human emotions, Aeryn needed to be cured of her strength or her personality. "You can be more", she is told by love interest John Crichton in their first meeting, and more is indeed what Aeryn becomes. She casts away the parts of her training that, as she comes to realize, don't mean a damn, and opens herself to new experiences. At the same time, however, Aeryn holds on of the skills that have kept her alive and made her strong, and uses them to safeguard her new, more rounded existence.

Instead of suggesting that Aeryn's competence and strength are an armor concealing her inadequacies, as Galactica's writers seem to be doing with Starbuck, the Farscape writers recognized that those strengths were an integral part of Aeryn's personality, that they had to be added to, not stripped away. Like all complete human beings, Aeryn had to learn to be vulnerable (although it's worth noting that throughout their relationship, Crichton was always 'the girl', emotionally speaking), but the writers never tried to make her pitiable. Galactica's writers use pity as a shortcut to making us love Starbuck--poor abused, lost child--but it is that pity, and the pity that Starbuck feels for herself, that is the most off-putting aspect of the character. It tells us that Starbuck is shamming strength, and that she may never make the journey into adulthood.

There has been some indication of progress for Starbuck's character--her journey to Caprica seems to have rattled her and forced her to take a long, hard look at herself, and she did seem to have something approaching a normal relationship with Anders--and as I've said before, Galactica's near-real-time progression means that any change we see in the character will be slow and gradual, but I'm not at all certain that the roots of the problem have been dealt with. Whether or not they meant to do so, Galactica's writers are treating feminine strength as a problem or an indication of a problem (with the exception of President Roslyn, of course), and they will never be able to write feminist fiction while they continue to do so.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments to Hartland's article. There's a very interesting and well-written discussion going on there about the show's strengths and weaknesses, and the point is made that Galactica is a conservative show in more ways than just its attitude towards gender.


Anonymous said…
Hi. :)

Good points all on Starbuck, and ones with which I agree. I quoted her as insisting she wasn't a commodity, and I think there she was speaking for the show's true position on women (which of course isn't the same as the Cylons'). What else her character says about the show's assumptions on gender is, yep, a bit muddier.

Initially, I was as uncomfortable as you were using Lucy Lawless's character as an example, but on thinking of her true identity I decided that, actually, it didn't make a great deal of different to the effect (as opposed to the possible motivations) of that film. After all, she may not believe it herself, but the lesson she teaches the fleet is the less the show is teaching us. Maybe. Possibly. You never know. :P

The Adama thing is more debatable, but I can certainly see your point. I can never decide whether I sympathise with Adama and his heart is in the right place, or, alternatively, he's an idiot who I want to smack ... and I rather like that.
Hi Dan,

I agree that Galactica's writers have their hearts in the right place when it comes to issues of gender. Just looking at Roslyn, who truly is a feminist icon - smart, strong, tough, capable of great tenderness, a natural leader, and damn sexy - makes it clear that they want to write about a world in which women are considered as capable as men. They just don't quite seem to know how to do this. It's the same thing with the gender distribution on the ship. The presence of Starbuck, Sharon, and the other female pilots on the flight deck seems to suggest a fully integrated military, but you look at the extras and the one-off characters and, 90% of the time, they're male.

I sympathize with your ambiguous feelings for Adama. I've come to the point where I just try to accept him as he is. In a way, I think the viewers' relationship with Adama mirrors Lee's feelings for him - his flaws drive us crazy, but his good qualities remind us that we love him, and why. Most of the time, anyway.
Anonymous said…
Yeah, it's a confused show in some ways, and I do sometimes wonder if Adama's character is one of those confusions. The more I think about it, the more I think his hideously strong personal connections to, well, everyone are what blind him so often to the consequences of his actions - he can be petulant and, frankly, somewhat selfish. It's this conflict, perhaps, that sees him simultaneously cry over a Boomer corpse and then want coldly to create a new one at the first opportunity.

OK, so now I just want tomorrow to arrive.
Aeryn Sun may be all the things you described but she was also BORING.

Gasp, splutter, choke, etc. We're going to have to very delicately agree to disagree on that point.

Repeat after me:
Starbuck is not a role model.

Did I say she was?

My objection to Starbuck in this post (which, since you've already read the later "Scar" post, you know I've since qualified) is twofold.

One, that thoughtless reviewers are treating her as the embodiment of feminist ideals.

Two, that Galactica's writers have, in creating the character, catered to blatant stereotypes about aggressive women.

This is something I wrote a few weeks ago, which I think better expresses my feelings towards the original concept of Starbuck:

I don't get the feeling that when the writers sat down to brainstorm Starbuck's character, they said 'what are some interesting issues we might give her?' I think it was more along the lines of 'here's a woman who is strong, physically violent, and sexually promiscuous, and therefore she must have these issues'.

And later:

I guess it boils down to this: I would consider a fictional character to be rounded and complete if I felt that its flaws and strengths were not defined by its gender but rather informed by it. Roslin is such a character - she's nothing if not feminine, and her femininity informs her strength, her tenacity, her ruthlessness and her willingness to play fast and loose with law and morality. None of those qualities, however, are explicitly derived from her femaleness. ... Starbuck's [flaws] flow directly from [her] femaleness, which is why I feel that they represent stereotypes.
I do see what you're trying to say. I'm not entirely certain that you see what I'm trying to say.

it's also unfair and untrue for you to allege that the main characters are being thrown together in a series of espresso- and deadline-fuelled brainstorming sessions.

That's not what I said. I'm sure Moore and his writers worked hard to come up with a character outline for Starbuck, just as they did for their other characters. It doesn't necessarily follow that the result of that hard work wasn't couched in stereotypes, or that the writers' starting assumptions weren't as I represented them.

Of course her flaws are related to her gender. Do you know anyone who's flaws, and strengths, are not? Gender is all pervasive and completely integrated into everything we are. It's unfair to the individual to say that they do something because they are a women or a man, but whatever they do, they will do as a women or a man.

You're not disagreeing with me here. As I said, I have no problem with flaws that are related to gender. My problems start when flaws are the result of gender, and are compounded when those flaws cater to stereotypes.

I certainly agree with you that the miniseries Starbuck was a delightful character - a wonderful mix of mannish toughness and girlish glee. I object to the character as she was expanded upon in the series, when the writers started falling over themselves to apologize for Starbuck's strengths. The character that emerged from the first season was screwed up in the most predictable, clichéd ways that undercut the very strength that was so appealing in the miniseries.

And again, I was to stress that it's not the fact that Starbuck is imperfect that bothers me. It's the way in which the writers chose to express her imperfections.

Someone wrote something very smart about "Scar" that I wish I'd quoted in my post about the episode. They said that the competition between Kat and Starbuck, their issues with one another and with themselves, had zero to do with the fact that they both happened to be women. The characters' gender affected the way that the animosity between them played out, but it didn't motivate them. It was a refreshing change, and up until "Scar" not something I was used to seeing in Starbuck.

And I know that I said we were going to agree to disagree, but this:

someone like Aeryn who embodies one kind of ideal (toughness) and watch her transform into another kind of ideal (nurturing)

is just too far beyond the pale. Dear God, did you even watch Farscape? This is so far from a description of Aeryn's character arc as to be in a different galaxy, which is precisely my point about the difference between her and Starbuck. Aeryn doesn't transition away from toughness. She's as tough at the close of the series as she was at its beginning, if not more so since over the series' run she learns to think for herself and reject the dogma that was instilled in her during her childhood. She learns to be nurturing - as well as friendly, happy, scientifically curious, compassionate and self-guiding - but that addition to her emotional arsenal doesn't come at the price of her toughness.

When Galactica's writers tell us that Starbuck is the way she is because she was abused, because she hates herself and thinks herself unworthy, they are essentially saying that toughness is something Starbuck has to overcome. That's something that Farscape's writers knew better than to even suggest.

The argument could be made that even at her worst, Aeryn was a more grounded, more emotionally sound person than Starbuck is, and that it is her screwed-up-ness that makes Starbuck interesting. I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I do feel that a) Aeryn still makes a better feminist icon and b) there are plenty of ways to be screwed up, and Galactica's writers could have found a more original one for Starbuck.
We seem to be talking at cross-purposes, Adonis, to the point that I'm beginning to wonder whether there's any value in continuing the discussion. You keep telling me that flawed and damaged characters are interesting and worthwhile. I've yet to disagree. I keep telling you that the way in which Starbuck's character was laid out in the first season caters to stereotypes and your response is to accuse me of seeing only what I want to see and being interested only in the fevered pursuit of my own agenda. I'm not quite sure how to respond to that. "No, I'm not"?

Because the truth is, I'm not always on the lookout for stereotypes in portrayals of women. I saw them in Starbuck, but I wasn't looking for them.

Now what?

I disagree with your characterization of toughness as merely emotional scar tissue. What of Roslin's toughness? What of Cally's and Dualla's and, hell, Adama's? Are they using it to cover up their pain and keep themselves emotionally cut off, or are they genuinely tough people? And if the latter, does the fact of their toughness prevent them from being damaged and flawed?

I really wasn't sure I was going to get into this, as this discussion up to now has been pleasant and civil, but that last paragraph in your second comment is not preachy. It's condescending as hell, and not something that you, as a man, get to say to me. Yes, there's something appealing, in a "Act as though you were living in the early days of a better nation" way, about the notion of bringing about a gender-equal society by behaving as though we live in one, but what that attitude boils down to, in the reality of our society, is willful blindness. When study after study show that women are still being discriminated against in schools, in universities, in the workplace and, yes, in the military, your suggestion amounts to pouring fuel on the fire. And as for saying that women have to be confident enough to become their own feminist icons... that's coming dangerously close to blaming women for their own situation. "Why can't those women make a go for themselves on their own? I did it, and I didn't have any stinking role models!"

I never suggested that characters should be written with feminist ideals in mind, nor was the search for icon-hood in Starbuck or any other character my idea (as I said, the original post was written partly in response to Laura Miller's parade of idiocy in Salon), but to suggest that feminist role models are somehow an outdated notion, and that the very desire to find them indicates some fundamental misogyny... dude, that takes some nerve. Our world is very far from ideal in many ways, not just gender-equality, and while I agree with you that people should be free to make their own way in life without having to deal with prejudice and stereotyping, the fact remains that I am going to spend the rest of my life bumping up against both. I don't think it's asking too much to expect an otherwise intelligent, thoughtful television show to put a little bit of effort into counteracting their pernicious effect.
Anonymous said…
I keep hearing feminist reviewers commenting on strong female characters retaining their femininity. A good thing of course, since most women are feminine, and they should not and do not have to give that up to be as strong as men (in every sense of the word).

However, I am wondering if most of these reviewers, or most people for that matter, realize that some women jsut don't have much femininity to retaine. We're not trying to "put on masculine covers" becasue we're "insecure". It's just how we are.

There are differences in the masculine and feminine brains due to the amount of testostorone they have. And sometimes, you will have a girl born with a "boy brain". I'm not saying that if a girl likes basketball she's "masculine". I'm just saying that some womens' brains are wired more like a typical man's than a typical woman's. So naturally, trying to fit into feminine rolls would be trying to be something we're not.

In essence, saying "This heroine is as strong as a man, while retaining her femininity" is like saying, "This heroine defies traditional gender rolls while remaining heterosexual." Just because she's tough doesn't make her gay, but at the same time, acting like gay people don't exist would be silly.

It's the same with masculine women and feminine men. Femininity is as important and powerful as masculinity, but the media should start to aknowladge that some women actually ARE masculine.
I'm not at all certain whether you're disagreeing with me.

It's true that some women aren't comfortable within the confines of stereotypical femininity (although I hardly think it's necessary to call on their brain chemistry as a justification for this preference - wouldn't a simpler explanation be that that definition of femininity is too narrow to contain half the human race?) and that there's nothing wrong with their choice to express themselves outside those confines.

This is, in fact, precisely the argument I make in my post, when I point out that, rather than simply stating that Starbuck is the way she is because why shouldn't a woman be tough and physically aggressive, Battlestar Galactica's writers fall over themselves to excuse her behavior. She's damaged, she's self-loathing, she's the victim of abuse. There's got to be something wrong with her, because otherwise why wouldn't she be girlish?

Femininity is as important and powerful as masculinity, but the media should start to aknowladge that some women actually ARE masculine.

Once again, exactly what I've been saying.

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